r— By Alex Cosgrave THE PROPOSAL to create a new offence of mercy killing, separate from that of manslaughter or murder, would amount to the legalisation of euthanasia, Dr Jonathan Gould, Master of the Guild of Catholic Doctors, said this week.
The suggestion put forward by the Criminal Law Revision Committee in its Working Paper on Offences Against the Person is for a new offence of mercy killing carrying a maximum penalty of two years' im prisonment, although the committee points out that in practice it would be unlikely that imprisonment would be imposed in many cases.
"The creation of such an offence would mean that those guilty of euthanasia would receive no civic rebuke or punishment," said Dr Gould. "A person charged with such an offence could be found guil ty or not guilty, but the creation of such an offence would mean that the nature of the event had
already been prejudged. That is to say it would have been decided in advance that the offence was not murder or in
At present, defendants in cases of mercy killing are un likely to be convicted of murder but may well be convicted of manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility if there is evidence of, for example, reactive depression. On a conviction of manslaughter in these circum stances the defendant is likely to be placed on probation or receive a very light sentence.
Throughout its report the committee stresses the dif
ficulties in framing a satisfac
tory definition of mercy killing to form the basis or legislation
and of finding a definition which would not be open to widespread abuse in practice.
But the Guild of Catholic Doctors and the Catholic Union, who have submitted comments on the proposals to the committee, feel that any definition of mercy killing, even if it were possible, would be so open to abuse that it would be valueless, and that the particular definition proposed by the committee would leave the way open for a multitude of abuses.
The definition offered by the committee would apply to "a person who, from compassion, unlawfully killed another person who he believed to be permanently subject to great bodily pain or suffering, or permanently helpless from bodily or mental incapacity or subject to rapid and incurable bodily or mental degeneratior "
The defendaat would also have to have reasonable cause for the belief that the victim was suffering from one of these conditions.
To fall within this proposed new offence the killing would also have to be with the consent, or without the dissent, of the deceased.
The Guild of Catholic Doctors and the Catholic Union are opposed to this definition on the grounds that a layman would not have the expertise to judge whether or not his potential victim was suffering from one of the conditions described in the committee's definition, particularly if he was closely emotionally involved with the suffering person.
"It seems to us that the uncertainty involved in the consideration of this type of question by a jury could well bring the law into further disrepute than the committee suggests at present occurs," they said.
They also pointed out that the condition that the consent of the person killed should have been obtained, or that he should not have dissented, would be impossible where the deceased was a child, or was unconscious, or in the case of mental illness.
Dr Gould also pointed out that the new offence included no provision of relationship to the victim.
-This means in effect that a
complete stranger could see a person in pain, decide to end his life and would then be charged with mercy killing under this new offence. There is no provision of the relationship to the victim, or thenature or length of t he relationship," An alternative proposal put
forward by the Criminal Law Revision Committee is that judges should he given discretion in sentencing where they are satisfied that it is contrary to the interests ot justice for the accused to be sent to prison.
This alternative proposal is
supported by the guild and the union, who see the advantage of giving such discretion in all cases where imprisonment is inappropriate. If this proposal were accepted. mercy killing would still be tried under the heading of manslaughter and no new offence would be introduced.
"This suggestion seems to us
more likely to provide a reassurance to the public than the creation of a new offence with a maximum penalty of two years' imprisonment4 which would in our view be regarded more as providing a potential eosfclearderrso,uetespefocrialulyninificatoius cases of
medical difficulty," they said. The committee's proposals and the comments received by the committee will now probably be submitted to the Home Office, but any change in the law would have to be passed by Parliament.
The Guild of Catholic Doc tors intends to send copies of its comments on the proposed new offence to MPs, said Dr Gould. "It is necessary to be on the
alert as a Private Member's Bill on this subject could he inntrootidee„
uced with very little Fr John Mahoney, SJ, acting
Principal and Dean of Studies of Heythrop College, also said this week that he believed the proposal to create a new offence of mercy killing was the first step towards legalising euthanasia and making it socially acceptable.
The official Church position is
to condemn euthanasia as murder, but also to point out that life should not be prolonged by "extraordinary means".
This means in effect that lite should not be artificially maintained by methods which would place an intolerable burden on the patient.